Life is simple, laid-back at Sonny’s Bait Shop

Sonny Hughey and Dorothy Foster stand by 2011 high-water mark.

To say that Sonny’s Bait Shop is off the beaten path is an understatement.

To get there, take Highway 24 west past Lake Mary Road, then turn right on a narrow gravel lane.

You’re soon confronted with several huge mud puddles, but don’t worry: There’s a gravel base underneath.

Up ahead on the left, an American flag flies outside the small shop, surrounded by outbuildings and random equipment.

Sonny Hughey, 71, is outside working on a generator somebody gave him. You need a generator down here for the frequent Mississippi River floods, like the one in 2011 that put 41⁄2 feet of water in the store.

Inside, Dorothy Foster sits at a desk with the door open to autumn sunshine. Sonny takes a break from his tinkering and comes inside to sit a spell.

The couple opened the shop 10 years ago after Sonny retired from the pipeline.

“When I used to come down a lot of weekends, when I’d come down they wouldn’t have the bait I needed,” Sonny says.

He decided if he ever moved here he’d open his own bait shop. He did, and since then has added onto the building.

“We just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he says.

The couple keeps the shop stocked with the sorts of practical items fishermen and camp owners are likely to need: fishing tackle, live bait, plumbing parts, boat supplies, cold drinks and groceries like Vienna sausages, sardines, crackers and baked beans.

“We just mainly keep stuff we know people like,” Dorothy says.

They also sell local arts and crafts, including Dorothy’s wood etchings and Sonny’s wooden furniture and boat paddles.

Sonny, raised in the Ducktown community south of Liberty, started coming to Lake Mary at age 6. Back then you forded Percy Creek on a low-water bridge and drove to the lake on a plank road.

Now that he’s retired, Sonny fishes as much as he wants, mainly tightlining for catfish.

“I don’t hardly ever set a trotline anymore because you’ve got to run it. I catch more on a rod and reel,” he says. “I really like to fish the (Mississippi) River more than I do anything else. I catch more fish.”

He’s caught 30-pounders that way.

“Every time I catch a big one, it’s on the smallest rod I’ve got in the boat,” he says.

Dorothy typically opens shop at 6 a.m. and may stay til 7 at night. But since they live across the road, all a customer has to do is toot a horn if no one is in the shop.

“I have had somebody come up at 4:30, 5 in the morning, sit and drink coffee,” Sonny says.

Their live bait includes minnows, goldfish, kool kat worms and red worms; plus there’s liable to be shrimp, catalpa worms and skipjack — coveted items for serious fishermen.

“They come in from everywhere,” Sonny says. “There’s people from Louisiana call us. They come in wanting a certain kind of bait.”

“One drove all the way from Denham Springs to get skipjack,” Dorothy adds.

The couple loves the quiet life and sense of community at Lake Mary.

“You have a lot of good people here,” Dorothy says. “In the 10 years, we’ve never had anyone come in here and do a cross word to us.”

Brandi Swearingen, who moved to Lake Mary from Liberty four years ago, stops in and adds to Dorothy’s sentiments.

“Not only the beauty that we look at every different angle, it is people like Sonny and Dorothy,” she says. “They’re like family, and not only me but they’re everybody’s family. The place is like paradise.”

A muddy paradise, that is. Sonny wishes officials would dredge the canal to Buffalo River to remove the sand and silt and open up the channel. He also wishes something could be done about the road from the Percy Creek bridge to the lake, which floods and remains a mess afterward.

“That’s one reason people are selling out right now. They can’t get to their camp,” he says.

Mud and floods haven’t deterred Sonny and Dorothy and those of similar mindset.

Even during the historic 2011 flood, “people were boating in here to get bait,” Dorothy says. “We were taking bait to people.”

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